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An Education Worth the Price?

Interview with Claudia Dreifus, coauthor of "Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money ..."

Imagine a free university. Admission is by lottery. Professors young and old teach all the students, without concern for tenure review or their next journal publication. Ideas flow freely in vibrant classes where humankind's vast knowledge is transferred to the next generation of up-and-coming adults.

Sound like a dream? Professors Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus acknowledge so, but they contend it's one worth striving for. Whether you are earning a degree yourself or contributing money to your grandkids' educations, college expenses take a chunk out of your budget. Hacker and Dreifus' new book, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — And What We Can Do About It, sets forth many provocative suggestions for overhauling America's university system to maximize its benefits to students.

Actually, "provocative" is putting it mildly. Hacker and Dreifus recommend abolishing university mainstays such as tenure and overblown athletics programs. They want to oust vocational training programs from universities, reserving such classes for post-undergraduate studies. And above all, they advocate that every young person deserves a free college education.

Hacker and Dreifus, domestic partners and seasoned professors, spent three years researching schools and interviewing students for their first book together. But as Dreifus said in a recent interview with the AARP Bulletin, this project actually started years ago when she and Hacker noticed a sharp decline in the status of teaching at the university level. With that came a decline in the quality of teaching, which has in turn cheated college students of all ages in our society.

(Read an excerpt from Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids And What We Can Do About It.)

Q. How have universities reacted to your proposals?

A. Privately, many university presidents have told us they agree with many of our criticisms. But publicly they could never say it. Fundraising is their main job and so they are a lot like senators — they must be extremely polite and show a good public face. But those who are true educators are very troubled by the state of universities today.

We've also had lots of letters on our website, and surprisingly a lot of professors are agreeing with our book. Good people find it frustrating to work in this very negative atmosphere.

Q. Negative because research is valued over teaching?

A. If being a professor were a board game, the object of the game would not be to get home, but to teach as little as possible. What bedevils me is that I don't understand how something as life-affirming and as wonderful as teaching young people can be viewed as the great negative that it is in higher education.

Q. What is the inherent value of a liberal arts education?

A. It exposes you to a wealth of knowledge of all of humankind throughout our history. It helps to develop you into a human being and will inform what you will do later in life. We are a very rich society compared to the rest of the world. We can afford to send our young people to four years of liberal arts education and then have them decide their career paths. An 18-year-old really can't know what he wants to do yet.

Q. How can parents and grandparents of college applicants identify good schools?

A. Consider public education for the kids or grandkids. Think about in-state education. Don't go for the private school, because that's going to very often be a quarter of a million dollars. And that's just crazy.

Q. You think the family money could be put to better uses?

A. Family members are often asked to help fund the education because it's so expensive. I don't think any education should ever cost $250,000. At that point it is at the level of not paying for itself. There are other ways to get well educated. If your kids insist that private college will start Jennifer or Jason out with a big advantage in life, you have to question that.

Q. Does a prestigious school pay off?

A. We've looked at one Princeton class and analyzed how distinguished they became over their lifetimes. And surprisingly, it wasn't too distinguished, considering the head start they had. We aren't saying that they haven't led good lives or done fine things and been of service to their community, but there was not one senator in the group, not one Supreme Court justice, not one Cabinet member.

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